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Disarmament

Volume 14: debated on Tuesday 8 December 1981

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11.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he has discussed the zero option nuclear proposals with his counterpart in the United States Government; and whether any consideration has been given in connection with the formulation of this strategy to the withdrawal of Polaris, Vulcan, Buccaneer, British-based F111s and other carrier-based nuclear weapons.

My right hon. Friend discussed the United States' negotiating position for the Geneva talks at the recent meeting of the NATO nuclear planning group. The Government fully support the zero option proposal, which would involve the elimination of all land-based long-range theatre nuclear missiles on each side. The emphasis on land-based missiles in the first stage of the negotiations is intended to make agreement easier to reach. Reductions in other land-based systems on both sides could be sought in a subsequent phase, but the negotiations are not intended to cover either sea-based or strategic nuclear forces.

Does not the Minister agree that the outcome of the zero option negotiations must inevitably mean overwhelming nuclear superiority for NATO forces? Will he therefore confirm to the House that President Reagan's initiative was a propaganda exercise, and will he now attach greater importance to the initiative put forward by President Brezhnev on 23 November, when he offered to dismantle all Soviet SS20s and all medium range theatre nuclear weapons? Is not that a real initiative for peace in Europe, and will the Minister reciprocate on behalf of Britain?

The United States proposal for the zero option was certainly not a propaganda move. The United States position had been discussed for a long time in NATO, and the position that it took during the negotiations was agreed by the NATO council before the negotiations began. In reply to what the hon. Gentleman said about balance, the present position is that when like systems are compared, Soviet superiority is of the order of 4:1 for long range theatre systems, and 6:1 if shorter range systems such as the F4 are included on both sides.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if all the extra weapons beyond theatre nuclear weapons are brought into the Geneva discussions, there is little likelihood of making any progress? Will he therefore continue to urge that a partial agreement about theatre nuclear weapons is better than no agreement at all?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation believes that we should start with the most dangerous systems, thus facilitating the prospects of agreement. If we can reach agreement on them, we should then move to other systems as well.

Is the Minister aware that we on the Labour Benches have welcomed the zero option as a basis for negotiation, as it is something for which Socialist parties in Europe have pressed? However, we recognise that it is impossible to confine the negotiations to those weapons. Why do not the Government agree to include the Trident escalation in the talks, when the SS20 escalation and the cruise escalation are included?

I have already dealt with our own strategic nuclear deterrent, and I have nothing to add to what I said.